There appears to be a breakdown in the way at least one of Virginia’s institutions of higher learning picks its presidents—I am talking about Virginia Tech. If you read the biography of Virginia Tech’s President, Charles Steger, you are struck by the heavy emphasis on his ability to raise money—and the lack of emphasis on leadership. This breakdown in selection criteria had horrific consequences on April 16, 2007.
Many have commented that the terrible shootings at Virginia Tech are symptomatic of broader problems in our colleges and universities, in our society in general, and in our values. They are correct. These shortcomings cannot be glossed over. A good place to start correcting the problem is to change the hiring profile for university presidents. Schools, and specifically Virginia Tech, should base the selection of their presidents on leadership not fundraising abilities.
If you read the official biography of Dr. Charles Steger that was published when he was named Virginia Tech’s 15th president, you are struck by the emphasis on his ability to raise money. The total number of words in the biography is 969, of that, 184 tout his fundraising abilities—that is nearly one-quarter of the biography. This fundraising ability may—inadvertently—have turned into a liability on April 16, 2007. Look at the words in Steger’s official biography:
“In Dr. Steger’s previous position as Vice President for Development and University Relations, he directed the university’s successful (fund raising) campaign, which raised $337.4 million, exceeding the $250 million goal by 35 percent. It was the most successful fundraising effort in the university’s history. Over 71,000 donors and 500 volunteers participated in this six-year nationwide effort led by Dr. Steger.”
“In addition, he (Steger) currently serves as president of the Endowment Foundation for the Western Virginia Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (known as Center in the Square) in Roanoke. Dr. Steger also is director on the Boswil Foundation in Zyrich (sic) Switzerland. He received Outstanding Fund Raising Executive Award given by the First Virginia Chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives in 1999 at its national Philanthropy Day Awards Dinner.”
Virginia Tech, on the eve of the shooting, was preparing for the school’s largest on-campus fundraiser in history. The nagging question is did Steger “want” the first shootings at West Ambler Johnston residence hall to be outcome of some sort of lovers quarrel because the publicity would be easier to handle than a campus shooting rampage. Did Steger hope against hope that the first two murders were the product of a love triangle; the publicity would have been relatively easy to handle and not distract from the upcoming fundraiser? Or did Steger want the shootings to be a failed robbery attempt or a drug deal gone bad? In both cases the publicity would have been easier to deal with. One cannot help but wonder—did Steger intentionally delay issuing a campus-wide warning?
Now we find out that Virginia Tech President Steger has been awarded the “Chief Executive Leadership Award” at the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) District III at their annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia on February 8-11, 2009. In presenting the award, CASE III board member Matt Winston, assistant to the president of the University of Georgia, noted Steger’s “Clark Kent” qualities of quiet leadership and determination. Yes, as a matter of fact Steger’s leadership was so quiet on April 16, 2007, that it didn’t show up. Indeed, Steger’s lack of leadership on that fateful day is a monument to indecision and vacillation.
I find the reference to Clark Kent baffling. Clark Kent is a comic book figure who become a superhero when faced with danger. President Steger became a fumbling, bumbling, bureaucrat on the morning of April 16, 2007. He didn’t save any lives—he cost the lives of 30 people at Norris Hall.
In the nine months before April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech cancelled classes three times because of threats of campus violence, and professors had received close to a dozen email warnings of gunmen on campus, multiple bomb threats to academic buildings, and violent physical attacks on campus. On the morning of April 16, 2007 two students lay dead on a dormitory floor and bloody foot prints led away from the crime. Steger hesitated; Steger did not spring into action when confronted with danger; Steger was not a super hero—he was weak.
If Virginia Tech President Charles Steger is Clark Kent—please someone get the kryptonite.